“But I can’t draw…”
How many times have we heard that from our fellow fantasy authors? It’s said when we discuss web design, book cover design, email marketing design, cover design, but it gets said most often when we discuss map designs for our various fantastical projects. Fantasy readers love maps. They draw fan into your world—and while they’re not a requirement, they’ve become expected to some extent.
That expectation is what stresses folks out—but there are solutions out there that can help! There are all sorts of tool that will get you a useful map so you can get back to writing. To help, I’ve put together this post. Here you’ll find all sorts of mapping resource from the simple to the complex. This will not be a definitive guide, merely a handy set of tools I’ve used that might empower you.
If you have a suggestion for a tool I should check out or an article or guide I should read, feel free to leave a comment or send an email to firstname.lastname@example.org. I’ll be happy to update the post after I check it out for myself.
- The Lazy Way — Map Generation
- The Hybrid Solution — Easy Map Creators
- The Time Sink — Making Your Own Maps
- Further Resources
The Lazy Way — Map Generation
If you are not picky about your map but want a base to annotate consider one of these free map-generation tools. Please note, most of these are fine for personal use, but you should check their licensing options if you plan on including these in your manuscript. (I highly recommend you hire an illustrator to redraw your map when you get to that point. You’ll get a style that fits your book and you’ll avoid any licensing lawsuits.)
In-depth mapping generation focus on creating realistic and random landscapes. If you’re not picky, these are an excellent starting point. I highly recommend running through the whole tutorial to see how the process works. Be sure to follow the Uncharted Atlas Twitter account for new maps generated hourly.
Upsides: Unique maps that pay attention to realistic geology
Downsides: Small images, no easy way to download high-resolution files.
In-depth mapping generator that allows for a wide variety of themes and customization. Azgaar has a great blog where he goes into detail about his process, and I’d encourage you to check it out.
Upsides: Loads of customization, download of editable vector .svg files
Downsides: Bit buggy. Occasionally crashes some browsers.
When you’re looking for something a bit larger, this planet map generator helps you expand to a global scale. Simple choose a seed and then customize to your heart’s content.
Upsides: Loads of customization, a lot of customizability
Downsides: Maps can be a little ugly
An expansive generated map that allows for custom levels of zoom. Loads of options and an excellent base for world maps.
Upsides: Lots of random generations make for unique maps, WYSIWYG saving
Downsides: No customizability
If you’re looking for generating something a bit smaller than continents or worlds, then this city generator is perfect. It allows for some style customization and a few other little treats.
Upsides: Highly detailed, fun visual customization, WYSIWYG saving
Downsides: Occasional strangeness w/ output. Oddly shaped buildings. No zoom.
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The Hybrid Solution — Easy Map Creators
Often, we authors have something particular in mind, and auto-generated maps won’t quite work out for us. But it would be nice to have some sort of program that achieves the style we want without learning cartography. The tools below are designed for just that.
If you’re looking for a classic fantasy approach and a simple (and quite powerful execution) then the latest version of Mapgen is perfect. With the wave of your brush, you can create stunning high-resolution maps in moments.
Upsides: Incredible maps in moments, realistic biomes, high-resolution output
Downsides: Rivers are placed automatically, lack of brush sizes, only terrain
Using tile-based imagery, this site allows you to create a wide variety of maps. Tiles can be rotated and mirrored creating a lot of customizability.
Upsides: Loads of customization.
Downsides: Maps can be a little plain. Time-consuming.
This is one of my favorites. Inkarnate lets you draw maps quickly and effectively, and they look good. The Pro account allows for even more customizability.
Upsides: Easy to use. Lots of options.
Downsides: One specific style, it’s a good one, but a limit.
If you want to get into the nitty-gritty of political borders and imperial expansion, then World Spinner (subscription-based) might be the right fit. Plus it includes a neat Heraldry Designer as well.
Upsides: Focus on countries and borders for fantasy. Heraldry designer.
Downsides: Not totally customizable.
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The Time Sink — Making Your Own Maps
Sometimes auto-generated images won’t hack it. Either you have a specific world in mind, or you want complete control over the placement of mountain ranges, cities, towns, harbors, and rivers of your world. I get it, I too suffer from that sickness. Thankfully, there’s a lot out there to help make your map be the best it can be.
First, let’s start with some advice…
What does it take to craft a world that feels authentic and realistic? How much of your design will be rooted in fantasy and how much will be based on scientific principles? In this in-depth article, Brandon Kier takes you through the dos and don’ts of fantasy cartography.
I’ve always felt there’s something a little off about the classic map of Middle-earth. Author and geologist Alex Acks agrees. In this article for Tor.com, he goes into details on the strange geology of Tolkien’s classic.
Jonathan Roberts has an extensive pedigree when it comes to fantasy cartography. In this quick article for Wired, he discusses the things he keeps in mind as he embarks on each and every commission.
A map should help enhance your story, and Lauren Davis has ten tips you can use to improve your project.
Now, let’s check out some tutorials…
Jonathan Roberts (from the Wired article earlier) has a ton of handy guides on his blog—Fantastic Maps. In his posts, he shares how you can quickly sketch out portions of your map using only a pen and paper. Be sure to check out his Tips & Tricks sections.
This step by step guide is often duplicated and for a good reason. It goes into great detail explaining how you can make a custom and unique atlas-style map for your setting.
Over at the World Building School, Nathan Smith goes into detail about how he creates a stylized map using Photoshop.
The key here is plausible worlds. This free downloadable PDF goes into great detail on constructing a map that feels realistic. The art is up to you, but the planning is solid.
This is a time-consuming process, and to create something memorable it’ll take a lot of trial and error. Especially if you’re just starting out. But the end result is something that fits your vision perfectly. Plus, like generated maps, there’s always the option of hiring an illustrator to redraw your creation. Just make sure to get those core ideas down on paper.
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If you are looking for additional help. Here are a few more resources for you to explore.
A free Adobe Illustrator or Photoshop brush set I created which allows you to recreate hachure-style mountains to lend a turn-of-the-century feel to your maps.
Reddit’s map making subforum has a ton of great advice and a lot of inspiration. While you’re at it make sure to check out their Mapmaking Wiki. It’s basically this post but with a ton more tools listed.
This online community has been around for a long time and has a ton of great members who are happy to share process, tips, tricks, and tools with the community. It’s also a great place to look for illustrators that can turn your sketches into a work of art.
Inspiration can come from anywhere. This handy site allows you to zoom into specific areas on the map and find old maps related to that area. Never know what cool stuff you’ll stumble across.
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This is just a small list of tools I’ve tried and liked. There’s a variety of sites and programs out there for a variety of authors and more coming along each day. As with everything, map creation is about finding the tool that works for you, fits your vision, and keeps you writing. As I mentioned in the beginning, if you have a site or resource you like that’s not on this list, let me know! I’d love to continue expanding this post.
Now, go make some maps.
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